Miners pivotal to hydrogen development

23rd October 2020 By: Esmarie Iannucci - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor: Australasia

PERTH (miningweekly.com) – The Australian mining sector had a significant role to play if the country’s ambitions to become a world leader in the hydrogen space were to be met, strategy consultants Accenture said.

“The hydrogen economy has some huge obstacles to overcome before it becomes mainstream, but the unique attributes of the Australian mining industry make it a logical first mover in the space,” Accenture mining industry lead David Burns told Mining Weekly Online.

“In addition to its economic potential, the mining sector has the capacity, expertise and experience to take on the challenge. Essentially, miners know how to safely manage large standardised equipment fleets at remote off-grid operations that house on-site fuel, energy and chemical storage infrastructure, all invaluable skills, when managing a hydrogen-powered mine and haulage fleet. 

“The Australian mining sector, perhaps more so than any other, has been no stranger to change, leading the world in technological transformation. It’s a trend that’s perpetuating, with miners already devoting time, money and expertise to developing hydrogen. The success of these efforts will position the mining industry as the catalyst that kick-starts the hydrogen economy – not just in Australia but the world.”

Australia’s emerging hydrogen industry has the potential to generate 7 600 new jobs by 2050, with exports estimated to be worth around A$11-billion a year in additional gross domestic product, federal Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor has previously said.

The government has committed more than A$570-million to back the development of an Australian hydrogen industry, which will include a A$70-million competitive programme to develop Australia’s first major hydrogen export hub.

Taylor has previously stated that the country was targeting the production of hydrogen for under A$2/kg, marking the point at which hydrogen becomes competitive as an energy source for industry, power and heat generation.

Burns told Mining Weekly Online that the Australian mining industry would not only be pivotal in developing the hydrogen sector, but would also benefit from the establishment of such an industry.

“The mining sector, like many other sectors, is now devoting significant resources to reducing its carbon footprint. Many miners now see hydrogen as a valid, albeit less conventional, means to achieve this. 

“Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, hydrogen is a potential game-changer for costs. First and foremost is the industry’s exposure to relatively high costs of power and fuel compared to the rest of the economy, a function of its relative isolation.

“More remote mining operations are switching to renewable energy as the economics become more compelling. With hydrogen gaining momentum as an alternative to fossil fuel, these mine sites may ultimately devote their renewable energy resources towards hydrogen production,” Burns said.

“Given the synergy that the mining industry has to hydrogen production, this would be a relatively seamless evolution.”

Burns believes that Australia, with its enormous renewable resources and renewable infrastructure that already produces an excess of clean energy to use, is well-placed to become one of the lowest-cost hydrogen producers in the world.

“The greatest challenge to becoming an exporter of hydrogen is transport. Despite hydrogen’s superior energy density (by weight), the cost of compression or liquefaction, then shipping to offshore markets is currently prohibitively expensive. Pipelines are currently only a partial solution. Hydrogen can be blended into natural gas pipelines but only in small proportions (less than 10%).

“But like everything in technology, innovation is leading to change. There is significant research and development going into cost-effective ways of converting hydrogen into ammonia by adding nitrogen from the air.

“Ammonia is far easier and more cost effective to transport than hydrogen and would convert to clean water and inert nitrogen gas in a fuel cell. In addition, leak-proof pipelines may ultimately be the long-term export mechanism for hydrogen – the small molecule size of hydrogen makes it a leaky but very fast mover, meaning narrower, and therefore cheaper, pipelines may be feasible.

“Should the transport nut be cracked, Australia is in pole-position to become the energy source of the hydrogen economy,” Burns said.